Mysterious Besh-Ba-Gowah

This timeless Native American site provokes tantalizing mysteries

Ancient ruins can be the most personal of artifacts, whispering with the voices of those they once sheltered. But such whispers often spark more questions than answers.

Consider Globe's Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park, where rustic stone ramparts and reconstructed dwellings evoke what archaeologists now call the ancient Salado "phenomenon."

Not long ago, many of those same archaeologists labeled the Salado people a culture. After all, they boasted a signature pottery tradition—striking Gila polychrome vessels, lined with geometric streaks of red, black and white. And they created the elaborate village of Besh-Ba-Gowah, replete with some 200 rooms—at least 60 of them second-story—centered around three large plazas on a hilltop overlooking the spot where modern-day Globe sits. Some quarters were used for habitation, others for storage. The entire settlement was likely built in stages over 225 years, researchers believe, ending roughly 1400 A.D.

But these days, scientists give themselves plenty of wiggle room concerning the Salado; this long-gone society in the Tonto Basin and Globe-Miami region now appears to have been a synthesis of migrants from Northern Arizona, rather than a full-fledged, homegrown civilization. Thus, archaeologists increasingly dub them a "phenomenon" instead of a culture.

Still, whoever they were, and whatever brought them here, their partially reconstructed remnants in this old mining town not only reflect a remarkable achievement for Globe—which spearheaded Besh-Ba-Gowah's re-creation in the 1980s—but also a sublime glimpse into the past.

Squeeze through a yucca-lined hatchway into a "living room." Gaze out a window across the broad ceremonial plaza. Peek into a reconstructed "kitchen," where a crackling fire, painted clay bowls and gourds line the adobe-stone wall.

Rub your fingers along these course rock walls; step lightly among weathered gravesites; climb to an upstairs dwelling—and you're soon swept into the hushed world of the Salado.

Besh-Ba-Gowah ("metal camp" in Apache) was among a string of settlements once prospering along verdant Pinal Creek. But life here eventually grew treacherous, and warfare may have driven the Salado away. Clues include high walls that protected the pueblo, and a long tunnel entryway. While the tunnel has vanished, you can still enter along its rebuilt, rock-lined corridor.

Beautiful as Besh-Ba-Gowah's stone anatomy may be, it remains far more solid than knowledge of its former inhabitants.

"Salado has been an interesting problem for archaeologists for a long time," says Patrick Lyons, head of collections at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. "The debate centers around how much the Salado developed locally in central and Southern Arizona, and how much was brought in by people of Northern Arizona."

One powerful clue lies in distinctive ceramics they left behind. "There's pretty clear evidence that the pottery was developed by immigrants from Northern Arizona and Southern Utah," Lyons says. "Besh-Ba-Gowah's museum has fragments of perforated plates, which are northern-style pottery-making tools. They also have locally made pottery which is indistinguishable from pottery made in the Kayenta region of Northern Arizona."

This buttresses the notion of a huge population shift. "My colleagues and I have been talking about it in terms of a diaspora," he says. "Basically, the Salado represent what happens when people from a common place of origin—like Northern Arizona—have to leave that area en masse. Thousands of people move into places that are already occupied by others. They're maintaining some aspects of their previous identity, but they're making different choices in different places about what behaviors to keep, and which ones to get rid of."

How many of those decisions are represented by the remnants here in Globe? "That's the interesting part of the Salado debate," Lyons says. "From a really basic standpoint, if people look at the layout of Besh-Ba-Gowah, there are lots of shared walls. There are lots of rooms that are apartment-style, stuck right onto one another. You might have 10 rooms in a row that share a common back wall. They're grid-style."

This above-ground, pueblo-type architecture hails from Northern Arizona, he says, and sharply contrasts with the enclosing walls and separate rooms that tend to dominate Southern Arizona archaeological sites.

All of the research in the world, however, can't surpass the experience of actually visiting this ancient site. Besh-Ba-Gowah is "accurate in representing the orientation of the village and open spaces and how rooms related to one another," Lyons says. "It gives people a sense of the size of the community in that time period. It gives them a sense of the two-story architecture at the site. The museum has lots of pottery on exhibit that will show them the dominant designs of Salado pottery."

It also reveals the pluck of this little town in the Pinal Mountains, 105 miles north of Tucson.

While initial excavation occurred here in the 1920s, it wasn't until some 60 years later, amidst growing community interest, that the city of Globe enlisted Arizona State University's Anthropology Department to dig and reconstruct the long-neglected ruins.

The park finally opened to the public in 1984, and landed on the National Register of Historic Places that same year. Manager Lynnette Brandon concedes that Besh-Ba-Gowah was one big effort for a small city to undertake. "A lot of it was the work of (the late) City Councilman Luis Aguirre," she says. "He realized the importance of it, and he finally pushed for (the site) until he got everybody to see it his way. He used in-house work crews, so he wasn't out a whole lot of money, but he really accomplished a lot."

His achievement now spreads across a bucolic, sun-dappled landscape. And even in these harried times, whispers from the vanished world of the Salado call to us.

"Everybody seems to get a sense of peacefulness and calm here," Brandon says. "We get people who come up from offices in the area, and spend their lunch hour sitting out at one of the tables or at a bench, just kind of collecting themselves. It just seems to have a calming effect on a lot of people."

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